Like many JRPG fans across the globe, both me and Luke have sampled a wide range of JRPG franchises, from Final Fantasy, to Persona, the larger Shin Megami Tensei titles, Lost Odyssey, Dark Cloud, Atelier… But one franchise that western JRPG fans always seemed to neglect, whether that be intentionally or unintentionally, is Dragon Quest. With the latest release, Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age having just released, we had our chance to revisit the charming world of Dragon Quest, and both left, being reminded of what made these games so damn appealing in the first place.
Please note that Joe’s portion of this review will spoil story events up until the third and fourth party characters join your roster – Roughly around 4-5 hours in. This is to better detail the narrative of Dragon Quest XI, and to help set up some of my praises and criticisms later. Luke’s comments will spoil sections right up to the end of the game.
Now it goes without saying that each entry in the Dragon Quest franchise is renowned for telling a varied and enjoyable story, self-contained within each game similar to Final Fantasy (Before the introduction of -1 & -2 versions), with common design principles, combat mechanics and world structures; the most notable of these is Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey of the Cursed King, which set players out in a wide, sprawling world full to the brim with enjoyable characters, locales, monsters and a rock-solid combat foundation – Whilst Dragon Quest XI does adopt a lot of the same-old monster designs and combat systems of previous titles, the game does just about enough to remain notably distinct from previous entries in the franchise; this time around, combat is spiced up with the new ‘Pep’ system; a form of randomly triggered surge of energy that boosts the affected character’s stats and potential dramatically, and provides them with unique attacks that can be pulled off either on their own, or with other ‘Pepped-Up’ characters in order to lay waste to your foes – Enemies too can become Pepped, and can make use of the stat boosts to really punish players that don’t take the time to carefully consider their combat options, however I never really found the game (So far) too difficult despite being wasted by a few extremely powerful bosses around 15-20 hours into the game that wrecked me with an AOE Pepped-Up attack when I was being risky. I’m happy to say that the difficulty in this title sits at a happy medium – Not too difficult, and not too easy; just right.
My first complaint, however, lies within the core concept of the Pep system – For one, Pep can only be achieved at random, triggering when you get attacked, or attack an opponent – Effectively, this is the game’s way of saying “You have a random chance each turn no matter what”; whilst it did seem that I was becoming Pepped-Up far more against stronger foes, it wasn’t enough to call it consistent. Whilst normally I wouldn’t have a problem with this, the issue lies with a number of sidequests that require you to kill certain enemies with certain Pep Abilities; the most notable of which being the Spitzfire early on, which requires you to defeat it with one of your party members, Erik, and his ‘Wild Style’ Pep Ability… Which requires 3 / 4 of your party (Limit of 4 active members at a time) to be Pepped-Up… Not good when it all lies to chance when Pep will expire or be attained. Not going to lie here, I spent around 30 minutes grinding Spitzfires just to get this quest cleared, and Luke had spent close to an hour just purely based on RNG alone.
I love the Pep system – I personally feel that this adds to the classic JRPG feeling that Dragon Quest has always strived for and adding this in as a randomly generated ability that can make a few characters incredibly overpowered is such a key element to add to the classic JRPG formula. Once you have progressed through the skill trees quite a fair bit and unlocked the second half of each character’s tree you can unlock abilities or items that push a character into a pep state once per battle – This is incredibly useful as the second half of the game can get really punishing at times.
Now, if the difficulty is a bit too easy for you, you can tweak the game with certain ‘Draconian Quests’ that limit specific options in the game – For instance, you can Curse the main character so he loses turns randomly in battle, limit yourself to not buying from shops, limit the amount of EXP smaller and weaker enemies give you, disable fleeing, make it so characters can only equip weapons and not armour, and increase all enemy stats by around 20% – Whilst these sound good on paper, a lot of them are simply hindrances or gag debuffs that I feel would take away more from the game than they’d add; good aspects to add in here would be options such as a Turbo Mode, force enemies to Pep mode, No Skill Point runs, or only heal at holy places (I.E. Churches, Statues, Fountains, etc).
On the topic of Skill Points, Dragon Quest XI introduces the concept of character builds with predefined skill trees for each character – Often branching into three to five different sections with varying buffs and skills; for instance, the protagonist can access skills that increases his chance to become Pepped-Up, Sword Skills and Greatsword Skills, whereas Erik can access Boomerang, Knife, Sword and Thievery skills, and so on. This makes for a semi-unique approach to each character, although each and every character does have their own predefined ‘Class’ so to speak (I.E. healer, mage, warrior, thief, buffer, debuffer, DPS, etc); characters can also be reset at Churches, which allows you to reinvest their Skill Points if you make a mistake somewhere or decide on an alternative path for that character.
Another new introduction Dragon Quest XI brings to the franchise is the introduction of a ride-able horse, a ranged crossbow and mountable monsters – Horses can be used to quickly navigate around the now surprisingly open-ish world – I say open-ish as there’s still a large degree of linearity in the game’s environments, but they do open up considerably around 15 hours in, after the events in Gondolia, when you obtain the Salty Stallion ship; one fun little thing that players will quickly realise upon dashing around with a horse is that you can bash enemies out of the way and avoid fighting them if you’re significantly higher level than they are; I’m unsure about the exact way this is calculated, but it seems that being 3-5 levels above the mobs in an area is a safe bet. The ranged crossbow, however, saw less use in my playthrough – It’s meant to be a tool used to engage enemies from afar, but you lose any sort of sneaking-up bonus damage you’d get normally from just slashing at a prospective foe; the crossbow also has a range of targets across the world that can be hit to win rewards such as stat-boosting seeds, but it’s not really anything I went out of my way to participate in.
Finally we have mountable monsters – One of the larger innovations brought to the series, as the name suggests, this allows you to mount specific ‘golden-glowing’ monsters and navigate the world with a new set of abilities, such as flying, hovering, scaling walls and traversing water; whilst it’s cool the first few times, and I do get interested in thinking about what I may be able to ride next, this mechanic rarely saw any significant use outside of select areas, such as dungeons where they were required to progress. I do wish that more was done with this mechanic, or that mounted monsters could help you in combat at the expense of a party slot or something.
Later in the game however parts of the map are actually only accessible by the use of Monster’s abilities, so the depth that Joe is striving for will be with him shortly.
On the topic of your main cast of characters, nearly all of the main characters in the main playable party are an absolute delight (Asides from the main character… But we’ll get to that shortly) – Erik, Veronica, Selena, especially Sylvando, Jade and Rab all have brilliant synergy with one-another, although the cast does become to feel a bit bloated by the time Jade and Rab join your fleet; the antagonists as well, Jasper, Hendrik and King Carnelian all present themselves as worthwhile threats and as worthy adversaries, and have pretty damn good voice acting to boot. This isn’t even mentioning the supporting cast of characters that help fill Dragon Quest XI’s world with wonder, charm and, honestly, fun.
The main character, however, is a bit of a mess.
I say this not in terms of his emotions or reactions to events… But because he has none to any of the actions characters take or to any of the events in the game – He might shoot an angry glare, or look unaffected at most things, but throughout your journey our protagonist is the tried and tested silent type. Given the plot, and it’s emotional significance on the protagonist, it would have been far more effective if the story had a voiced main protagonist; however, I understand all too well how JRPG franchises hate to break the tradition of silent protagonists. This becomes especially apparent with the first emotional hook in the game, the unfortunate destruction of Cobblestone, the protagonist’s home town.
Some of the characters introduced in the second half of the game really add to the dynamic of the party – One of the best things I found with DQXI was thinking that Hendrick was going to turn out to be the big bad only for him to end up joining the party to help take Mordegon down. I find this incredibly satisfying and such a brilliant thing for a classic style JRPG to add in.
Being born as ‘The Luminary’ to an unknown royal family, our protagonist is tasked with defeating ‘The Dark One’, and to silence the darkness encroaching around the world by any means, leading his gaze to drift towards the mysterious Yggdrasil at the center of the world and it’s many historical mysteries – Upon being recognised as the Luminary, the protagonist is summoned to Heliodor where he is greeted by King Carnelian… And promptly betrayed and thrown to rot in jail for supposedly not being the Luminary, but instead being the Darkspawn, a fabrication used by the kingdom of Heliodor to suppress the Luminary and his possible political and global recognition – Upon meeting Erik in jail and escaping, he returns to Cobblestone, where the protagonist appears to have travelled back in time somehow, reliving his childhood with his now-deceased grandfather and long-time friend Gemma, until, unexpectedly, he’s brought back to reality, and awakens in an annihilated Cobblestone; all of the villagers he knew were killed, his home destroyed and childhood razed… And yet our protagonist just stands there with a placid look on his face. No reaction, no shock, no trauma. We rely on Erik to tell us how hard it must be on our protagonist and how difficult it must be looking at his destroyed home… But hell I don’t believe a second of it!
This shows just how much Dragon Quest XI needed a voiced protagonist, as, up until the protagonist’s reaction (Or lack thereof), I was entirely engrossed in the destruction of Cobblestone… Only to have that illusion of immersion broken by a lack of emotional investment by the main character.
This all pays off in the second half of the game however, and the game actually uses Hendrick’s destruction of Cobblestone as a huge driving force for his redemption – In fact he even uses the destroyed Cobblestone for a last haven of humanity after the fall of Yggdrasil, effectively completing his character arc completely.
+ Fun, interesting main cast of characters, along with a stellar supporting cast
+ Fair difficulty that sits just right between ‘difficult’ and ‘easy’
+ A lush and gorgeous open world that is ripe to explore
– A notable amount of early-game linearity can make the first few hours a bit of a slog
– Rideable monsters needed more screentime and gameplay involvement
All things considered, however, we both agree that Dragon Quest XI’s world is an entertaining and charming one, even if Joe does think that the character driving our experience through this world is about as invested as a bit of mouldy wood. The combat still feels as good as ever, the world is absolutely beautiful with a diverse range of locales and biomes to explore, and we both can’t wait to finally put this game alongside Dragon Quest VIII as one of the best Dragon Quest titles made to date.